EAST LANSING - Tom Izzo can sense that a lot of observers and cynics are puzzled about Michigan State's problems on the basketball court. But Izzo isn't bothered.
"A third of the season is over and I don't know where we are in your minds but in my mind we are probably one game off of where I thought we might be," Izzo said.
Michigan State is 7-3 and down to No. 15 in the national polls after being ranked No. 2 in the preseason, but Izzo sees the next juncture of the season as a time when teaching and improvement can begin to fully take hold.
"We played eight games in 20 days, which is a lot for an NBA team," Izzo said, "and now it's three in 19 days.
"It's not quite fair to say we will get all 19, with Christmas taking up four or five days and final exams taking up three or four, but the difference in having some time to practice is going to be enormous."
That stretch of eight games in 20 days included flights to Maui, Durham, N.C., and New York City, and the tired point that all of the travel caused the Spartans to be ... tired.
But the point remains that MSU is the only team in the Top 25 to have played four other ranked teams. Kentucky is the only other team to have played three.
And the schedule included a game at Duke University. Michigan State is the only team in the Top 25 to have played a true road game on the home floor of an opponent currently ranked in the Top 25.
The three teams that beat Michigan State are all ranked in the Top 5 this week: Duke is No. 1, UConn is No. 4 and Syracuse is No. 5.
Izzo is aware that fans and media are fatigued with the "fatigue" explanation, so he tried to stay away from that angle during Monday's weekly press conference.
"I don't want to make everything out to be rest," Izzo said in reference to early season hiccups. "It was a lot more (a lack of) practice time. We played the War game (in practice last Thursday). We didn't do that for two weeks.
"I know that may sound mundane to some of you but those of you that are at practice a lot would agree that that's important. We didn't run our fastbreak a lot. We tried to do more stuff in the halfcourt. We tried to do the defensive stuff more in the walk-through. We were just trying to preserve. We didn't do that (last) Thursday and Friday."
Izzo puts heavy emphasis on rebounding and the transition game. But his team was unable to adequately practice in either area for more than two weeks, prior to last Thursday.
The Spartans were far from spotless during Saturday's 77-76 victory over Oakland University, but the transition game finally showed some pep.
"Starting Keith Appling helped our break a little bit," Izzo said.
The freshman replaced Austin Thornton in the starting lineup on the left wing, logged 21 minutes and made a glaring difference in MSU's transition game.
Not only is Appling faster than Thornton, with better leaping ability at the finish, but the Appling of today is also better than the Appling of November.
Last week, for the first time, Izzo was able to begin teaching and correcting Appling's game, and his work on the fast break in particular.
"During that stretch (of 8 games in 20 days, with lengthy travel), we spend all our time looking at the next team because we had so many games in a short period of time," Izzo said. "We had very few film sessions on the most recent game, it was always the next game. That's not healthy. That's where not being able to come in and watch any film or spend any time on those things hurts us."
Izzo's fine-tuned system of self scouting and internal evaluation was temporarily scrapped. Meanwhile, a freshman like Appling stood to be negatively affected the most by its absence.
Sprinting The Lane
Close observers of MSU basketball know that MSU's wing guard on the left side of the floor is supposed to run the left sideline - and sprint hard - immediately after a change of possession. Appling wasn't doing this during the stretch of 7 games in 16 days prior to Saturday's outing at The Palace. Some observers may have wondered if this was due to the toll of travel and the excessive schedule on the rookie. That was part of it. The other part was simply getting him into the film room and making corrections.
"He looked like a snake," Izzo said of Appling's errors in transition lane assignment, "he was running this way and that way. There was a little confusion."
Against Oakland, he scored four points in the first half on a pair of transition baskets, thanks to sprinting the left lane correctly. He might have had two more if a Durrell Summers pass had found him accurately.
Later, Appling's sprinting of the left lane forced the Oakland defense to charge out at him, opening the window for Appling to dish back to Korie Lucious for an open 3-pointer.
And later in the first half, Appling's push in transition helped provide Summers with an opening for a dunk attempt.
Summers missed the dunk, and Lucious missed the 3-pointer.
But MSU's transition game began to find its legs at The Palace, thanks in part to a larger, more refined contribution from Appling.
"He did do a lot better job (on the break)," Izzo said. "Sprinting that lane, and he can do it with such ease, and he can do stuff when he gets there."
Now that the silly part of the schedule is over, the Spartans will not be on the road again until the Jan. 3 game at Northwestern.
In between, there will be the three games against Prarie View, Texas and the Dec. 31 Big Ten opener against Minnesota, and practice, practice, practice.
Coming out of a taxing November and early December, Izzo feels he can look back on the teeth of the pre-conference schedule as having been a valuable opportunity to test his team and learn lessons.
"There is no question the schedule has not allowed us a chance to practice," Izzo said. "But the early season schedule has given us a great opportunity to do a lot of things. We have played against one of the best zones in America (Syracuse). We have played against some of the best point guards in maybe the last 10 years.
"We have played against one of the better 3-point shooting teams in Washington. One of the better low-post teams we will play (Oakland), when you look at Keith Benson and Will Hudson, their scoring, rebounding, as a 1-2 punch that is probably the best 1-2 punch we have faced all year inside.
"And we played against a pressing team in South Carolina. We have played against a ton of All-American players.
"Doing all of that in playing only four home games, I think we are a little bit battle-tested."
Izzo said the Spartans practiced hard on Sunday night, and are taking Monday and Tuesday off for final exams.
"I am looking forward to the chance to start practicing Wednesday on a full-go basis," Izzo said. "I'm excited about the rest of the schedule before Christmas, playing Prarie View (Dec. 18), and then Texas (Dec. 22). It gives us a chance to get through finals and then a chance to play another Top 25 type team."
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